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Friday, December 4, 2009

What Is to Be Learned? Thinking about 1989

NINETEEN-EIGHTY-NINE IS often celebrated as the year in which capitalist democracy triumphed over the tyranny of Eastern and Central European communism. But, argues Mitchell Cohen, "The events of 1989...did not come about because flowering liberalism triumphed over monolithic totalitarianism, [but because] Bolshevism was unsalvageable.

Dissent Magazine

What Is to Be Learned?
Thinking about 1989

When the Berlin Wall cracked on November 9, 1989, the clock struck thirteen in the Soviet bloc, and its hands halted. History went on. Rotting dictatorships in eastern and central Europe, long sustained by and for Moscow, had been crumpling for some time. Western-style democratic structures (some sturdy, some less so) would supplant them. Europe’s politics and that of the world were recast in a largely unforeseen but exhilarating year of liberation from police states. In its aftermath, a newly unified Germany integrated both into Europe and the Western alliance, while a hobbling Soviet Union dissolved after a failed coup against Communist Party Secretary-General Mikhail Gorbachev in summer 1991. Then Boris Yeltsin’s “shock therapy” enfeebled further its Russian successor.

The Milton Friedmans explained then how all would be well so long as this emerging world shook an invisible hand. Two decades later, many people feel slapped by the back of the hand as we are a year into a globalizing economic crisis; and there is a good deal of shaking. Der Spiegel reported in July that 57 percent of former East Germans now defend the communist ancien régime and 49 percent think life was good under it (although, of course, mistakes were made). But when the Communists competed in the one democratic election that was held in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in March 1990, they received only 16.4 percent of the vote.

What is to be learned? In seeking (partial) answers to this question, it is helpful, I think, to move on different planes, all the while staying alert to, but also circumspect about, their links. And we ought to look through the cold war fog, which still dims some political quarters. When conservatives credit their own for 1989, they need to be reminded that Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and their intellectual comrades insisted fiercely in the late 1970s and early 1980s that “communist totalitarianism” could not change, since its ideology determined everything.

Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish ideologues. One proposes that “democratic dictatorship” is the way to humanity’s liberation, another that a junta, say in Chile, is part of a “Free World.” We tend to forget that this South American country evolved toward political democracy in roughly the same period as the Soviet bloc did… and during which China did not. General Augusto Pinochet’s brutal coup in 1973 against a democratically elected (left-wing) government came with Washington’s support (although it was the doing of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, not Reagan). In the next years, disparities between rich and poor grew massively due, in part, to the prescriptions provided to Pinochet by Milton Friedman’s Chicago School. Naturally, the military regulated the population while the “free market” regulated itself. But both Santiago and Moscow began processes of change—“Transición” in the former case, “Perestroika” in the latter—in the 1980s. Political parties were functioning in Chile in 1988, although Pinochet was still the sole candidate for president; by 1989, oppositionists emerged into the open in eastern and central Europe. A deal between the military and its foes allowed for democratic elections in Chile in 1990; something similar was designed in the year before between regime foes and the Polish and Hungarian communist parties. Pinochet stepped aside, but remained military chief (and then “senator-for-life”). In the Soviet bloc, as in Chile, elites sought to secure their well-being in a changing world.

Some will claim that markets brought Chile “ultimately” to democracy. Others find a curious rationality within this contention: democracy had to be overthrown violently to give free rein to markets so that democracy could be established. Perhaps the middle phase should have been bypassed. Experience may tell us that attempts, like Moscow’s, to command all aspects of an economy and abolish all markets inevitably yield miserable results, but that doesn’t make democracy and markets necessary to each other. Radical free-marketers gained clout in Chile due to democracy’s overthrow; in eastern and central Europe their sway came when dictatorships were ousted. Marketization and Chinese Communist Party despotism reinforced each other in the two decades after Tiananmen Square.

It may be that things are more complex than allowed by formulas (of the Left as well as the Right). After all, democracy’s concern is self-governance by citizens who must be responsible for each other. This is quite different from determining everything by a mystical mechanism of supply and demand coupled with “enlightened” egoism. Not that these distinctions would have encouraged Ronald Reagan to stand before cameras at Chile’s frontiers to demand, “General Pinochet, tear down your junta!” And no American president has come to China’s border to call out, “Mr. Chairman, tear down one-party rule.”

But Reagan did make a famous appeal in West Berlin in June 1987: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this Wall.” Had he still been in office and issued this same challenge in October 1989, there is a real chance that it would have provoked defensive reactions by East Berlin and the Kremlin. The Wall might not have fissured the following month, and there might have been a good deal of violent havoc throughout eastern and central Europe. Twenty years later, we tend to forget all the contingencies. One recent study, Mary Sarotte’s 1989, shows how the Wall’s opening was not planned but was the immediate consequence of a bungled press conference by an East German official. Moreover, in October, the Stasi (secret police) actually began to plan an East German version of Tiananmen repression against demonstrations in Leipzig.

Pronouncements by incumbent president George H.W. Bush, who early in 1989 sought new pressures on the Kremlin, became notably restrained as events unfolded. His reserve about Tiananmen itself was dispiriting, if not craven in its “realism,” but reserve was the right policy for Europe, whether it was adopted because the president perceived accurately the perils of inflammatory statements (his explanation in his memoirs) or because he didn’t “do the vision thing” (as he said in other circumstances). It is true that American policy toward Moscow had shifted earlier, in the mid-1980s, when Reagan and Thatcher concluded that they could “do business” with reform-minded Gorbachev. This, however, was to admit that their past understanding of totalitarianism and the cold war was wrong. Ironically, both Washington and Moscow stepped back in 1989, and thus each facilitated change, one by not taking invasive action and the other by not acting so as to rouse Moscow to do so. Yet Gorbachev, it seems, was genuinely dismayed by Tiananmen. Bush acted as if it were politics as usual.

The Politics of Differences

Totalitarianism did not remake every soul in the Soviet bloc into a single Comrade Everyman who loved Big Brother. It could be argued that something proximate—or dreadfully close enough—could be found in the Soviet Union in Stalin’s heyday (and in Nazi Germany), but even so, “totalitarianism” is useful only as one explanatory tool among others to describe these worlds, and not as a master category. [1]
Other factors range from the impact of authoritarian political cultures to the specificities of Russian and German history.
Consider the cold war era in central and eastern Europe. An uprising took place against East German communism in 1953; Polish communism faced disruption in 1956 and 1980; Hungarians fought for their freedom in 1956; Prague had its Spring in 1968. Is it probable that communist-party states would have survived in these countries had it not been for Soviet military power? Surely not, even though—perhaps because—communist reformers led the efforts for radical change in three of these cases (Wladislaw Gomulka, Imre Nagy, and Alexander Dubcek), and there were outright revolts by proletarians against “proletarian states” (in the GDR and Poland).

If you traveled through (most) Warsaw Pact capitals in the years immediately preceding 1989, you would have found few people, apart from intellectual hacks, who took seriously the leaden, ruling creed. At least, that was my experience in Budapest and Prague, as well as in Bucharest several months after the overthrow of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1990. Oppositionists denounced totalitarianism, and this was a worthy enough rallying cry against oppression. But its use also revealed the flaw of trying to explain regimes in their entirety by systems of ideas, especially ideas that these regimes claimed as their own utopian prescriptions. After all, if generations raised by totalitarianism don’t believe in it, its effects weren’t…totalizing. Explanations of why and how these regimes fell must address more than the preoccupations of intellectuals—that is, conflicts of ideas and the role of ideologies. Think of the Yugoslavian case. Tito was a committed Stalinist when he broke from the Kremlin. The discord concerned independence, not socialization of the means of production, and his liberal communism came later for practical reasons.

EAST BERLIN WAS partly an exception. This should not be so surprising. Forty years of GDR dictatorship came after twelve years of Nazi dictatorship. Nazi dictatorship came after the Weimar Republic, which fascist demagoguery described as a foreign imposition. Weimar came after the Prussia-dominated Second Reich, with its deeply authoritarian cultural, political, and especially militaristic patterns. None of this history provided Germans with much schooling for critical-minded citizenship, and in 1989-1990 I found in East Berlin more believers in regime ideology than in any of the Communist countries I visited. Among the faithful were dissidents, a good many of whom spied on each other for the authorities. I experienced what this meant in the person of an underground leader of the East German Social Democratic party. After the Second World War, Social Democrats in Germany’s east were forced, essentially at gunpoint, to merge with the Communists into a euphemistic organization—the Socialist Unity Party (the SED). After I arrived in East Berlin in December 1989, an activist from a church-based opposition network told me how an independent Social Democratic Party had been established anew the previous month thanks to a “Hegel study-circle composed of Lutheran pastors and a man named Ibrahim Böhme, who is no Lutheran.”

This party was now emerging in public as were many foes of the regime. There was a new openness in East Berlin, but it combined with considerable uncertainty. I could not reach Böhme by phone, I was told, since he did not have one. One chilly evening I trekked by trains and trams from Alexanderplatz in the city’s center to what seemed to me to be an especially remote, dreary quarter of the East German capital—a city that specialized in hues of gray. I had an address in my pocket, and found it on an ill-lit street. I knocked on what I hoped was Böhme’s apartment door, and I heard “Wer ist da?“ from the other side. “Ich bin Cohen von Dissent, eine Sozialdemokratische Zeitschrift aus New York,” I responded, with worry about my wobbly German.

Böhme invited me into his musty flat, and an amiable if awkward conversation ensued. What were the prospects for his party? Would—or could—the GDR survive as an independent state, separate from the neighboring German Federal Republic? Willy Brandt had spoken out for unification, but many in West Germany’s Social Democratic Party were ill at ease with this prospect. What did Böhme think? I asked. Then I asked about his improbable name: “Ibrahim—dass ist ein arabischer Name, ja?” “Nicht immer” (“Not always”), he replied, with apparent unease. It seems that Ibrahim was born Manfred of at least partially Jewish descent and grew up an orphan in Leipzig. He adopted an Arabic name to be “cosmopolitan.”

When I left, Böhme gave me a copy of his party’s new newspaper. Its headline was Rosa Luxemburg’s legendary censure of Lenin: freedom is meaningless unless it is for those who think differently from you. It proved difficult, however, to know just what Böhme thought. He soon became the Social Democratic nominee for GDR chancellor, but withdrew when it was revealed that his multiple identities included secret police informant. (He denied it.) The title of a book written later about him had varied resonance: Comrade Judas.

Betrayal and deception are common tools of police states, although the GDR deployed them with particular proficiency. Self-deception was a key feature of this regime’s disintegration. Consider another conversation I had that same December with a reform-minded economist who was then vice chancellor of Humboldt University. I arrived at Dieter Klein’s office to find him somewhat flabbergasted. Sitting by a portrait of Lenin, he explained that he had just found out that the country’s debt was twice what the government had told its economists.

East Germany embodied a curious kind of rationality. Once Erich Honecker was ousted as SED head, a fuller account of the economy was made, which revealed it to be heavily dependent on Western credit. A rigid, centralized dictatorship called itself democratic and insisted obstinately that it was following the Marxist-Leninist “science” of history toward utopia thanks to a planned economy—except that its economists and professors of economics (or most of them) studied, functioned, and presumably planned with false data. This, supposedly, was a counter-logic to regulation by markets. It mostly made a hoax of socialist values (just as privileges enjoyed by party members made a verbal swindle of talk about “equality”). How can a regime command a self-declared socialist economy with counterfeit statistics? Only with insurance, in this case the Soviet army, securing its command of—actually, abolition of—politics, while the government relied on credit from capitalists. Once the Kremlin decided against sustaining its empire by force, this steeled ruse collapsed.

Hungary’s story and society differed considerably from East Germany’s, even if its communist regime also came to power after the Second World War and not by invitation. After their failed revolution against Soviet dominance in 1956, Hungarians suffered ferocious repression. But the uprising’s Judas and its post-1956 Communist leader, János Kádár, took to a liberalizing course in the 1960s. He proposed, “If you are not against us, you are with us.” This inverted the traditional totalitarian formula of perpetual mobilization, “If you are not with us, you are against us.” Political opposition was still not brooked, but in return for quiet,“goulash communism” provided a certain prosperity, partly through use of markets, together with spells of cultural openness. Hungary also began to allow more outside contacts than most communist lands. But a more relaxed regime came with a proviso: fidelity to Moscow.

This policy had historical roots. A small country faced with a stronger outside power can either engage in bloody rebellions (which Hungarians have done) or adjust in ways that allow internal autonomy, or at least a significant measure of it (which Hungarians have also done). In 1867, almost twenty years after it repressed a Hungarian bid for independence, Vienna granted Magyar self-rule, on condition that a “dual-monarchy” entailed loyalty to the Habsburg Empire. In June 1989, I met Hungarian dissidents in Budapest after attending the massive assembly there—in effect, a demonstration—that accompanied the ceremonial reburial of the executed leaders of 1956, and I found some of them thinking aloud about a similar future arrangement with Moscow. Hungary’s communist government was then foundering, oppositionists were hopeful but also edgy because nobody could predict what the Kremlin might do. (It was just after Tiananmen Square.) Might Hungary obtain domestic autonomy while remaining the Kremlin’s steadfast ally? Reformist Communist prime minister Miklós Németh was already saying, as had Gorbachev, that pluralism-within-the-ruling-party wasn’t so different from a multiparty system. Hungary opened its border with Austria in May and then in September with the GDR. East Germans could now emigrate out of the Warsaw Bloc. It was a seminal event in the cold war’s dissolution. Peaceful transition to multiparty politics was negotiated, and free elections came the next year. NATO would eventually include both Hungary and, as part of unified Germany, the ex-GDR. But similar exits from communism do not mean that the experience of communism in both lands can be described adequately under the same “totalitarian” rubric.

A fuller, comparative history of these regimes will have to be free of bifurcating simplicities. We read too often that there was communism, and then there was Hungary; there was communism, and then there was Czechoslovakia; there was communism, and then there were Poland, Romania, and so on. But how Hungarian was the Hungarian communist experience, in contrast, say, to the Polish experience? How Romanian was Romanian communism? The maintenance of communist domination for decades by Soviet force (and economic aid) does not mean that there was no communism-with-local-characteristics. Otherwise, the cold war would be reducible to decades of conflict between homogenous national essences and a communist abstraction. Some nationalists and anticommunists exult in this kind of narrative. It permits them to avoid uncomfortable questions about their own national cultures, all of which have unsavory dimensions (as do those of countries that didn’t experience communism). It also corresponds to an illusion often found among the (relatively few) remaining Marxists: “If only everything had been done exactly according to our ideas, without national or particularist distractions or imperialist threats, we would have arrived at the new shore.” Nationalists and communists are prone to purist fantasies. But the one-party regimes of eastern and central Europe had, at the very minimum, at least two entwining contexts—the history of communism and the history of these nations, in which the cold war was a phase. Problems between Poland and Russia did not begin with Lenin or Stalin. The same was so on the other side of the world. Troubles between the United States and Cuba did not begin with Fidel Castro.

That is why characterizations of 1989 as the nonviolent and teleological triumph of liberal over totalitarian ideas share the flaws of all Whig interpretations of history. The events of that year could have had varied outcomes, and violence was an essential part of what happened. By this I don’t refer to Romania, where alone among the Eastern and Central European countries, blood did flow. Beijing’s repression of pro-democracy demonstrators showed what might have been had Gorbachev not decided against it, to the chagrin of some of his own Soviet colleagues and to the frustration of satellite party leaders like Honecker. And then something grievous—no, downright dirty—came after the events of 1989 in Europe, but which cannot be separated from them. While most Western, Central, and Eastern Europeans celebrated peaceful union and the prospect of prosperity in the Economic Community, and while many spoke of Europe as an alternative force for good in the world, they did nothing to stop slaughter on their own continent of other Europeans in another ex-communist country. The murderous end of Yugoslavia cannot be bracketed when we speak of 1989. And Bosnia should be remembered especially by small peoples everywhere.

Reform or Revolution?

If dissidents in most eastern and central Europe would have likely been trampled but for decisions in the Kremlin, then the most important question of 1989 is plain: Why did the Soviet Union fall apart? The answer is not simple, and here, again, we can see that the idea of totalitarianism is only of limited help. Leninism came to power with no real economic plan. Almost every major Marxist thinker in Europe excoriated the creation of a party-state and warned against pursuit of a classless society in a country that lacked its material and social preconditions. In the 1920s, the New Economic Program and, after Lenin died, Bukharin’s agenda responded to that lack. It also went counter to the totalitarian model. Yes, there was an increase in centralized, repressive political control, but this came with an opening up of the economy, some decentralization, and the use (if limited) of markets. It is improbable that an egalitarian, stateless Russia would have arisen, or even an attractive social and political regime, had Bukharin been victorious in internal Bolshevik battles. Nonetheless, the USSR would have become a different place. Stalin’s horror, which cost the lives of millions, came closest to a totalitarian paradigm, but the paradigm, as I suggested earlier, only provides us with partial understanding. The prospect of change emerged quickly after Stalin’s death and reemerged in almost every decade afterwards. Even Lavrentiy Beria, Stalin’s toxic right hand, thought reforms urgent. Then, afterward, there was Nikita Khrushchev, Aleksei Kosygin, and finally Mikhail Gorbachev.

It may be argued that all the failures to reform proves that the Soviet system was an unmovable Leviathan from its beginning to its final collapse. But this approach makes seven decades of dictatorship into a homogenous blur with a single internal reality and eliminates all contingencies from history. It is reminiscent in various ways of Bolshevism’s approach to the record of Tsarism (and also to the fatalism of many Russian nationalists). Russian autocracy was, well, always autocratic. It was never admirable. Nonetheless, different Tsars pursued different policies, including reforms. “Revolution from above” did not originate with Lenin or Stalin, as Robert Tucker pointed out in his biography of Stalin, but has a long lineage in Russian history. The end of Russia’s ancien régime in 1917 is not best explained by a Leninist teleology; and the end of Communism’s ancien régime is most usefully explained by multiple factors. Lenin’s party was a functioning institution; Stalin’s was a shell, an unparty that did the Leader’s bidding. Khrushchev’s revived party allowed Solzhenitsyn to publish, while Brezhnev’s neo-Stalinist one chased him out of the country. The Kremlin’s foreign policy behavior during all these periods was not simply “totalitarian imperialism,” but comparable in numerous ways to Russia’s pursuit of (what it saw as) its interests before and after Communism. Soviet formulations of ideology, especially during the Stalin years, were often reminiscent of pre-communist Russian political culture; think of the Third Rome and the Third International.

A story of continuity and discontinuity, and of profound social changes over seven decades also underlay the collapse of communism. A largely rural, peasant country was transformed into an urban industrial one. You can command illiterate village people into cities, factories, and communes, as Stalin did with ruthlessness, but once this has been accomplished their settled children and grandchildren will grow up in a modern educated society. By mid-century, Soviet citizens began to have needs that their parents and grandparents never imagined—and these needs cannot just be commanded. The events of 1989 (and the Soviet collapse less than two years later) did not come about because flowering liberalism triumphed over monolithic totalitarianism or because Ronald Reagan was a visionary. A lethargic party-state resisted transforming its means of rule to correspond to a society that was created by its own progenitors. Bolshevism was unsalvageable (it should never have come to power in the first place). Gorbachev’s reforms, like those of some Tsars, came too late, though they might have created a more attractive country than the “free market” Russia pursued rashly by Yeltsin’s revolution. Now, in the post-revolutionary era, older authoritarian patterns of Russian political culture have re-emerged in a society that again has been changed significantly. After all, Vladimir Putin watched his country’s international prestige and power collapse in 1989 as a KGB operative in Dresden.

A Left that Learns?

Parts of the Left understood long ago that Leninist and Stalinist projects (and their offshoots) had disastrous implications. They sought, but never succeeded fully, to dissociate the Left’s most important values from dictatorships and ways of thinking that always seemed to identify grief done in the name of the Left (like Stalin’s purges) with inadvertent detours. That grief, of course, should have been cause for deep worry about some left-wing habits; it should have served to stimulate real rethinking. This does not mean that Marxist criticism of capitalism and market-obsessed social thought has lost its value or trenchancy.

It does mean that dictatorship-in-red, not to mention mass murder, is rather worse than the fetishism of commodities. And it means that efforts to abolish all markets in order to remedy capitalism’s ills brought liberation nowhere and created a great deal of sorrow. Better to accept the ideas of economic pluralism and plural forms of property, as argued three decades ago in Alec Nove’s The Economics of Feasible Socialism. Its proposed mix of public, cooperative, and private sectors remains attractive, especially given the imbalances of social power in our own society, and even if Nove’s notions of market socialism would need significant updating for the twenty-first century. Still it implies something important. It is better to struggle perpetually with countervailing principles, like those of liberalism and socialism, or of individualism and solidarity, than to read the world through a single tradition (like Marxism) or to seek a holistic synthesis. A Left that learns must be secular in respect of its own ideas, rather than “believe” in them. The important question of 1989 was not “What is to be confirmed?”

Mitchell Cohen is former co-editor of Dissent and currently professor of political science at Baruch College and the Graduate Center of CUNY. He was in East Berlin and Budapest in 1989 to cover the end of communism for Dissent.

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